This story is part of a series examining the state of Wisconsin’s democracy in an era of gerrymandering, secret campaign money, restrictive voting laws and legislative maneuvers that weaken the power of regular citizens to influence government. More stories will be published in upcoming months.
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Wisconsin might not have the most money in its elections, because there are some states with no limits at all on individual campaign contributions. But critics say it is awash in “dark money,” contributions that are not required to be reported to any governmental agency.
What are the limits?
The contribution limits are:
- Statewide offices, governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, attorney general, superintendent of public instruction, Supreme Court Justice: $20,000
- Appeals judge (Milwaukee County), circuit judge (Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties), district attorney (Dane, Milwaukee, and Waukesha counties): $6,000
- Appeals judge (other districts): $5,000
- State senator, circuit judge and district attorney (outside of Dane, Milwaukee and Waukesha counties): $2,000
- State Assembly representative: $1,000
- Political parties, political action committees, legislative campaign committees, independent expenditure groups and issue ad groups: No limits except in some cases corporations and unions (see below).
What must be reported?
Individual contributions: Candidates are required to identify in their campaign finance reports filed with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission the occupation of contributors who give them more than $200 in a calendar year. But the identity of employers of campaign contributors is no longer required to be reported under a law enacted in 2015.
Independent expenditures: Contributions to and money spent in support of or opposition to a candidate must be reported and must be made without consultation, coordination or cooperation with the supported candidate. The organization doing the independent spending must file an oath swearing no coordination with the candidate and report any spending within 72 hours after it takes place.
What does not have to be reported?
If money spent in Wisconsin is no more than 50 percent of an independent expenditure group’s entire campaign spending in a year, the independent expenditure group no longer has to register with or report its activity to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission.
And when a person or entity contributes to a so-called issue advocacy group, that group must reports its total receipts and expenditures but is not required to report the identity of the donors or how it is spending its secret contributions.
Such groups say they focus on issues and do not advocate for the election or defeat of a candidate. Many such ads, critics claim, are thinly veiled campaign ads that actually do just that.
Issue ads often have messages along the lines of “We need a governor who will fight the unions” or “We don’t want a senator who doesn’t care about our climate.” As long as issue ads do not use the words, “vote for” or “vote against,” they are not required to report the sources of their money.
Who cannot donate?
Corporations, unions and other such groups cannot donate directly to candidates’ campaigns. But they can donate up to $12,000 a year to political parties or legislative campaign committees. Prior to 2015, direct corporate donations had been banned in Wisconsin since 1905.